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They Say: “What do magic fingers, cargo pants, a ducky wucky and a little Jimmy have in common? What’s the meaning of one dollar to a five-year-old or a drunk? Find out in Performing Knowledge’s fast-paced fusion of prose and theatre.”
Ben’s Take: Crossing the lines from one medium to another is tricky business (see: The Great Gatsby). Good theater adheres pretty strictly to the rule of “show, don’t tell,” while prose has a few more literary tools up its sleeve to convey meaning. One needs only to compare the exquisite experience of hearing David Sedaris tell one of his stories to reading it alone from a book, however, to understand that good prose and good performance are not mutually exclusive. And America’s greatest playwright, Eugene O’Neill, filled his scripts with dense, prosaic stage directions that drilled into the subtext of his stories. Still, the team behind Legal Tender is taking a rather large risk and stepping into some new territory where it mostly succeeds.
Show producers Performing Knowledge Project seek to combine theater and literature in imaginative ways. Co-writer and director Robert Michael Oliver began this project with poetry in the well-received 2011 Capital Fringe production Embodying Poe. This year Oliver teams up with his wife, writer Elizabeth Bruce, for their first experiment in “prose-in-performance.”
The show works best when it is treading closest to traditional theatrical ground. “Exact Change Only,” featuring a delightfully enraged turn from Forrest Rilling, and “Priming the Pump,” in which Sharyce L. McElvane provides a satisfying conclusion to the evening drawing on a depth of feeling for a subway busker, are essentially monologues with brief moments of vocal and visual support from the other ensemble members. Even while wading through the densest prose, though, the ensemble rises to the occasion with exceptional vocal work and thoughtful actions that succeed in bringing the words to palpable life. They are asked to play numerous characters, sometimes within the same very short story, and each of them meets the challenge with enthusiasm that leaps off the stage.
The script is lifted directly from a selection of short “flash fiction” stories from a collection Bruce wrote all focusing on different individuals’ interactions with a single dollar bill. Bruce is an incredibly clever writer and takes this basic premise to great lengths producing a rich diversity of characters, settings and stories. There isn’t a weak one in the bunch.
Kudos to director Oliver for keeping the production moving at a swift pace that made a rather weighty nine stories breeze by. His cast was clearly well-rehearsed, nailing every single one of the numerous and often rather complicated scene changes with speed and precision.
I can’t say I left the Gearbox theater convinced that prose-in-performance is a grand new form. I was reminded of an old cliche turned on its head; while the parts were all good, often even exceptional, the whole did not quite live up to their individual sums. There are plenty of Fringe productions that more than live up to the cliche, where the writing is not nearly as creative or the performances as competent as those in Legal Tender, but their fundamental theatricality somehow smooths over some of the harsh edges. Here the form itself felt like the harsh edge that kept poking through the vibrant and engaging stories and clear and artful performances. Still, it is show to savor for many reasons and introduces a local creative team well worth keeping an eye on.
See it if: You like the idea of curling up with a good book and falling asleep, but wish you made it out to the theater more often.
Skip it if: The idea of curling up with a good book makes you fall asleep.